Just recently, I seem to have heard the term “unsung hero” more than I had for some time. The most recent occasion was the article in Sunday’s Observer newspaper about that paper’s quest, in partnership with NESTA, to find “50 new radicals actively changing Britain’s communities for the better”. You can read more about that search on NESTA’s site here.
A key element of the work that David Wilcox, Drew Mackie and I have been doing with the Big Lottery Fund’s People-Powered Change programme over the past few months, has been to demonstrate that local heroes need no longer be “unsung” as it is relatively easy, cheap and straightforward, using low cost equipment and free social media tools, to tell the stories of local communities their groups, organisations, individuals, leaders and heroes. If, like me, you find so much of today’s mainstream media coverage to be negative and depressing, it is good to know that there are an increasing number of outlets for positive stories and nuggets of inspiration. I was recently present at a number of the Village SOS Roadshows which the Big Lottery Fund is running with the Plunkett Foundation, and the highlight of each of those events was an inspirational tale of how one community had driven through a successful project against the odds.
All this raises questions about our society’s values and the kinds of achievements it celebrates. Celebrities who are famous for being famous, talent shows which only promote those whose “talents” fit a carefully defined, and profitable, mould, and footballers who get paid millions for kicking a ball, are the icons which our current society celebrates. Being able to sing vaguely in tune on Saturday night TV or eat grubs in the jungle seem to be qualities which attract a lot more attention, and reward, than helping to make life better for local communities. And when mainstream media does turn its attention to such activities, it is often to mock, belittle or patronise those involved. Or, often, all three.
But there is reason to be optimistic that the rise of the internet and social media platforms is gradually changing this. Online phenomena such as TED talks, which showcases inspirational speeches on a variety of topics which never fail to stretch the mind; impromptu movements such as #riotcleanup, in which spirited citizens used social media to take to the streets and clean up their communities the morning after the summer’s riots; and the growing band of community-celebrating “hyperlocal” websites fostered by Talk About Local, among others, are all examples of how people are using the tools now available to tell the world their positive stories and mobilise others around their messages of change.
People-Powered Change takes a lot of its inspiration from the Asset-Based Community Development (ABCD) movement, explained in the video below by Cormac Russell. ABCD starts from the view point that communities are full of assets that can be exploited for positive change, and rejects the old-style philosophies that communities are full of problems in search of solutions. Similarly, we can use social media to enable communities to tell their positive stories, shake off the negative stigma imposed on them by years of knocking copy, and inspire people to take action in their neighbourhoods. Every neighbourhood has its local heroes, and they are far more numerous than most people would imagine. The days of those heroes being “unsung” should be in the past.